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Everybody Loves Butterflies

Karen Oberhauser's work shows why monarchs are important

By Becky Beyers

In the world of butterflies, the monarch rules.

The orange-and-black beauties are the state butterfly or insect in seven U.S. states, the insect emblem of Quebec, and the representative insect of the Mexican state of Michoacan. Countless children have been wowed by its metamorphosis from caterpillar to winged beauty.

Its unique migratory pattern intrigues scientists, both professionals and the thousands of citizen scientists who volunteer to record monarch sightings as the butterflies go back and forth to central Mexico each winter.

Because of that long migration—some butterflies travel from southern Canada, more than 1,000 miles—monarchs depend on a wide variety of habitats as they move back and forth. While the monarchs themselves aren’t endangered, some of their habitat is, thanks to deforestation, development of agricultural land and other environmental issues.

Karen Oberhauser led the team that developed a North American plan for preserving monarch butterfliesThat’s why scientists from the U.S., Canada and Mexico put together the North American Monarch Conservation Plan and published it last summer. Karen Oberhauser (’89–Ph.D., ecology and genetics), an associate professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, was the report’s lead author and project coordinator.

The report calls for increased enforcement of environmental laws, better monitoring of monarch population and migration, and providing incentives for conservation practices, among other things. Oberhauser says the plan came about after the trilateral Commission for Environmental Cooperation enlisted nine scientists—three from each country—to pull together a report and recommendations. All three governments have accepted the report, and some of its ideas already are being put in place. Oberhauser recently conducted training sessions in Mexico on how to monitor the butterflies, for example.

Writing a cooperative report with the oversight of government agencies was a new experience for a scientist used to working more independently, she says, but learning how each country deals with environmental policy, and the differences in those policies, was fascinating.

monarchIn the U.S., that means more interest in conservation policy overall, Oberhauser says. “Right now I’m teaching a conservation biology course; this subject wasn’t even a recognized field when I was a student. Working on this plan, developing the course, and engaging in research with a very applied conservation focus have all come together in an active learning experience for me, as well as for my students.”

While Oberhauser has spent much of her career studying monarchs and their habitats, one of the report’s surprises was the sheer magnitude of how much habitat is being lost all across North America. “It really reminded me of the importance of volunteer monitors keeping track of what’s going on with monarchs,” she says. “Citizen science is going to be very important as we move forward.”


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